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High Holiday D'var Torah in time for the election!

Here is one from the beginning of school for my Jewish Traditions class, but as it is election appropriate I will share! 

As the days of awe or Jewish high holidays approach I am struck by the idea of communal responsibility. As jews we are accustomed to the idea that we each have the power to change our own fate by partaking in mitzvot, or good deeds. During the high holidays we are judged for the good deeds that we have done, and repent for the times when we have sinned. We undergo personal teshuvah or return by asking for forgiveness in our lives, we apologize to our loved ones, and we reflect on ways we have transgressed promising to renew our committment to torah and righteousness. We are given the opporunity to pray for mercy and inscription in the book of life. But what would it look like if the high holidays were about communal forgiveness and responsibility?

In reading Eliyahu Kitov's "The Book of Our Heritage" he speaks not only of the individual but additionally of the communal. He writes, "Each person has merits and transgressions. If one's merits exceed his transgressions-- he is a tzadik; if one's transgressions exceed his merits -- he is rasha; if both are equal-- he is beinoni. The same applies to each country. If the collective merits of its inhabitants exceed trangressions, it is deemed a just country.  If their transgressions exceed their merits, it is deemed iniquitous. And the same applies to the entire world. .... if a countries transgressions exceed its merits, it is subject to immediate destruction. This judgement is not quantitative one however, but a qualitative one."

But how do we measure a countries transgressions? How do we know if our merits exceed our transgressions? In the United States where we have varying opinions on how we inact freedom and whose opinion is right it certainly seems like a hard task to judge. Do we measure by what laws seem just, what attitudes seem appropriate, or what acts of kindness outway our policies? If our whole country felt that each decision they made would be judged in terms of merit or destruction would they we be able to work together for the sake of the countries survival?

As I watched the democratic convention this past week I related to Past President Bill Clintons speech when he cited the mere fact that the discussions revolving around the upcoming election has changed from statements about the issues our country is facing to statements about individuals themselves. Bill said, he was not raised to hate replublicans whereas implying that todays generations are taught that their opinions vary so much from the oppossing party that they don't even attempt to see the goodness in the others opinion and therefore we have become a divisive country rather than one which works together.

Bill says, " Though I often disagree with Republicans, I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats. After all, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to my home state to integrate Little Rock Central High and built the interstate highway system. And as governor, I worked with President Reagan on welfare reform and with President George H.W. Bush on national education goals. I am grateful to President George W. Bush for PEPFAR, which is saving the lives of millions of people in poor countries and to both Presidents Bush for the work we've done together after the South Asia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake.
When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. After all, nobody's right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. All of us are destined to live our lives between those two extremes. Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn't see it that way. They think government is the enemy, and compromise is weakness. "

How are we suppossed to live in a divided country like this? When we view eachother as the 'other' and not see ourselves as sharing responsibility for our countries merits how will we face gods judgement together? It seems that politics in our country has turned into the blame game more than ever before because we find ourselves in a depressed situation where we have dig ourselves out and each party thinks that they have the answers and if elected they will enact them. What we don't realize is that we have so much work to do just to speak the same language again. Each party talks about hope, and change and the capacity to build greatness while each party maintains that  they will not give in to the opposing side. Regardless of who is elected we must committ to working together to shared goals of kindness and the qualitative goals not the quantitative numbers for either side to achieve. In order to be a country that is worthy of other nations respect we must take communal responsibility for the transgressions we have communally committed.

As Kitov shows each person plays a role in this communal judgement. He says, " Each person should therefore see himself-- during the entire year-- as if he were half meitorious and half guilty. Likewise (should he see) the entire world as half meritorious and half guilty. If he commits one sin-- he tips the scale of guilt for himself and the entire world and causes its destruction, as well as his own. If he commits one mitzvah, he tips the scale of merit for himself and for the entire world and causes its salvation as well as his own.' Kitov sites Rambam with this idea.

This is not the first time in Jewish history where destruction for sin was at stake. In the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah Abraham pleads with god to save the cities if he is able to find righteous men, when he is not able to find enough rightous men the cities are in fact destroyed. I fear that our country too may get to the point where we are no longer able to outway our merits with our transgressions. Everyday that we continue to produce hate for one another is another day when we are not moving forward towards mitzvot.

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תרומה –תצוה (Exodus 25- 30:10) T'rumah and T'tzaveh-- And you shall be a blessing....


Trying out a new blog format, feedback welcome!


In our lives:
February is Jewish Disability Awareness month. Awareness itself is an interesting term to wrap your mind around, it makes me ask: how are we building “awareness” and about what specifically? Are we being ‘aware’ just by engaging in conversations about disabilities? How do we talk about disability, in what context, and what actions are we taking in our society to help those who may have different physical or mental challenges. I took this week to reflect on what it means to be able-bodied, the ways in which each person is a gift, and the varying individual tools each person has at his/her disposal. Many organizations in the Jewish world are doing work to think through how to integrate Jewish Disability Awareness month within their own communities. See links below.


When it comes to talking about disabilities I am always struck by the importance of language. Have you ever thought about the negative association formed with words used to describe several handicaps? The implications from these words such as handicap, disabled, wheelchair bound, amputee, retard, etc, are all negative. Language is important, especially when it affects how we view people. One way to combat negative connotations of language is to state the person first rather than the handicap. For example the man who is blind vs. the blind man. This shows that it is only one aspect of his identity rather than the defining factor. Given that every person is differently able, and we each have different strengths and weakness it seems unfair to label someone who only has one arm, or will never surpass a third grade reading level as disabled, why not label each person as unique? Idealistic, I know, but I still feel there is a better way to describe people then by pointing out their limitations first. Instead of the girl with brown hair it becomes the deaf girl. When we talk about disabilities there is a certain amount of sorrow or unspoken pity for those who can’t do certain tasks. Take a minute to think of how exceptional those who are disabled would feel if we took the time to ask questions about their challenges and how they can accomplish something instead of making our own assumptions about their capabilities.


Reflecting:
When I reflect on why it is important to have a month where we think about the disabled among us I think about the individual tools we each possess. It is naïve to think that we can do everything on our own; we must look to the support of others to help us iron out our own strengths and weaknesses. We each have gifts, and we each have a set of tools, it is figuring out how to use them well, and how to learn from others that is the real challenge. We are each only as able as we let ourselves be. There is so much that we can learn from one another if we are willing to both ask for and accept help. Those with physical or mental disabilities are just like everyone else with their own strengths and weaknesses. Think of those you admire who have amazing talents. Are even the extremely gifted able to do everything well? Or is there something in particular that they shine at, and other things which they struggle with? We must figure out how to use our resources to the best of our abilities including allowing others to support us in the ways where we may not be as ‘able’ as our friends, family or neighbor.

With everything we do we must look to those around us and be open to learning. When we think we can do everything on our own we lose the ability to be positively influenced and changed by others. I think we give up our own self growth when we assume we have no need for others help.


From the source:
The past two weeks Torah portions, T’rumah and T’tzaveh talk about how the Jews did and should build the tabernacle, or sanctuary. Building is something we must do together, when we build or create we use our own tools to make something spectacular. To me, building is similar to learning from each-other. One builds together the same way one learns from the teaching of others. We rely on the wisdom and abilities of those that came before us and the unique gifts that we can bring to the table. Whether you are brilliant, musically gifted, an artist, an economist, a pop-culture guru, etc. everyone has a passion and the ability to share; it’s what we learn from one another that builds our individual character. So the next time you see someone struggling don't pity them but rather offer your skills and look for what you can learn from them as well. I guarantee the only thing standing between you and those around you is fear and the inability to see past differences. Think positively and ask the person in your midst to share their gift with you.

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him (yidvenu libo)…And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."

(Exodus, 25:1, 2, 8)

While the text deals with the specific building of a tabernacle, we also see pieces of how God asks for the gifts of the people to be shared with him. Showing us to not only be appreciative of the gifts that are offered to us, but also to be receptive of where these gifts come from. Our gifts are our passions and we must always remember how much we have both to offer and to learn from each person among us. By interacting together we can achieve holiness similar to that which comes from the building of the tabernacle.


As we continue to read the story of Exodus, I'm reminded that last week we celebrated both Moses’s birthday and date of death on Friday, the 7th of Adar. Moses, while a memorable Jewish leader in history was ‘slow of speech’ implying a lisp or speech impediment. Yet when Moses is remembered we speak of his strengths and accomplishments. In fact his brother Aaron often spoke on his behalf, but it was Moses who was the visionary and whom God choose to lead the Jewish people on their journey. Let us not forget the skills we can share with the world and the ways in which we can be open to the teachings of those among us whether able-bodied or disabled.


And you shall be a blessing.....

Debbie Friedman’s lyrics:

L'chi lach, to a land that I will show you

Leich l'cha, to a place you do not know
L'chi lach, on your journey I will bless you
And you shall be a blessing
L'chi lach, and I shall make your name great
Leich l'cha, and all shall praise your name
L'chi lach, to the place that I will show you


Union for Reform Judaism Jewish Disability Awareness Month related blogposts
North American Federation for Temple Youth JDAM Resources
Religious Action Center engages with JDAM
Gateways Jewish education for children with disabilities

Follow #JDAM on twitter

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